The Laughing Policeman Stuart Rosenberg

This wobbly exercise in '70s grunge features Walter Matthau as its saving grace; his serene charisma is the one striking feature of a film that otherwise doesn't know what it wants to do. Matthau plays a cop whose partner has been gunned down in a massacre on a city bus — a traumatic event under normal circumstances but one that's compounded by the fact that he was supposed to be on sick leave. The investigation, which teams our hero with an obnoxious and talkative moustache-with-legs (Bruce Dern), follows the pasts of the remaining seven victims, which have been slightly shady and are possibly interconnected, into the dark underbelly of San Francisco's demimonde. Comprehending the increasingly tangled mystery (which makes The Big Sleep look like a Norman McLaren short) becomes largely beside the point, as the film chooses instead to concentrate on Matthau's estrangement from his family, his partner and corrupt society in general, at least until the next lugubrious plot point reminds you you're supposed to be watching a thriller. It wants to be a study in outraged alienation, like a before-the-fact Taxi Driver, but it isn't strong enough to throw off the shackles of genre entirely, making it hard to decide what information is important to absorb. Do you worry about the hero's soul or do you wait for the killer to surface? The indecision results in a film high on grimy atmospherics but paced like someone trying to avoid a Dune world sandworm. With Louis Gossett, Jr. as a jive-talking black stereotype, Cathy Lee Crosby as the obligatory hottie wearing nothing but a shirt and a whole lot of uncomfortable talk about how brazen those crazy "fruits" have become. The only extra is the film's trailer. (Fox)